Jacques Derrida famously argued, in Given Time I. Counterfeit Money, that the gift is impossible. There are many parts to the argument but the basic idea is that a gift requires that there by no
reciprocity, return, exchange, countergift, or debt. If the other gives me back or owes me or has to give me back what I give him or her, there will not have been a gift, whether this restitution is immediate or whether it is programmed by a complex calculation of a long-term deferral or differance. This is all too obvious if the other, the donee, gives me back immediately the same thing.
In fact, Derrida continues, for there to be a gift at all, it is necessary that both the giver and the recipient not even recognize it as a gift.
At the limit, the gift as gift ought not appear as gift, either to the donee or the donor. It cannot be gift as gift except but not being present as gift.
What then about academic gifts, such as the recent donations by “Papa” John Schnatter and Charles Koch to the University of Louisville ($6 million) and the University of Kentucky ($12 million) to establish new academic centers?
Are they really gifts?
The first clause in both agreements is exactly what one would hope for in relation to a gift to an academic institution—the promotion of academic freedom:
Most of the rest of the agreement specifies the institute’s programs, the support expected from both the donors and the university, the terms under which the donors can terminate the agreement, and so on.
But then, sprinkled throughout the agreement but highlighted especially in Attachment A, is the mission of the institute:
That’s not academic freedom; it’s not an open-ended analysis of the role of free enterprise in society. The sole mission of the institute is to “discover and understand aspects of free enterprise that promote the well-being of society.”
Academic freedom means following ideas wherever they lead, a process that cannot be afraid either of the results its conclusions or of conflict with the reigning ideas or powers that be. That, as academics, is what guides our research and what we teach students in the classroom.
The terms of the agreement completely undercuts that notion of academic freedom. The stated mission of the John H. Schnatter Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise is not to study the role of free enterprise in society—the ways in which, in some cases, it might promote and, at other times, undermine the well-being of society—but to focus only on “aspects of free enterprise that promote the well-being of society.”
That’s not academic freedom; it’s dogma.
That requirement of dogma, of producing and disseminating only one point of view, one set of ideas, renders impossible the academic gift. It’s not an academic gift when it purchases a particular set of ideas. And it’s certainly not a gift that should be accepted by the members of an academic institution.
But, of course, the donors are not stupid. They may be self-interested but they know they are. Their non-gift is precisely meant, as the agreement confirms, to create an equivalent exchange—of a large monetary donation for ideas and activities that celebrate free enterprise. The same is true of the administrators who accepted the gift: they’ve sold what is most precious to their institutions—academic freedom—for large monetary donations.
As is turns out, that’s exactly what the narrator observes in Charles Baudelaire’s story, “Counterfeit Money.” After noting that his friend’s aim in giving a counterfeit coin to a poor man was both “to do a good deed while at the same time making a good deal; to earn forty cents and the heart of God; to win paradise economically; in short, to pick up gratis the certificate of a charitable man,” he concludes:
To be mean is never excusable, but there is some merit in knowing that one is; the most irreparable of vices is to do evil out of stupidity.
It’s clear, the John H. Schnatter centers for free enterprise at Louisville and Kentucky will not be established on the basis of academic gifts but, rather, from pretty straightforward exchanges. And parties on both sides have signed on to that deal—of money for dogma.
While their acts may be undermining academic freedom, I suppose there’s at least some merit in their not doing it out of stupidity. The agreements they’ve signed testify to the fact that, on both sides, they know exactly what they are doing.